A few days ago, President Barack Obama suggested mandatory voting as an option for the United States. It is ironic that a President who has raised more and spent more running for that office than anyone in history is also criticizing the influence of money in politics.
“Other countries have mandatory voting,” Obama said Wednesday in Cleveland, where he spoke about the importance of middle class economics, and was asked about the issue during a town hall.
“It would be transformative if everybody voted — that would counteract money more than anything,” he said, adding it was the first time he had shared the idea publicly.
The clout of millionaires and billionaires in campaign funding has been enormous, and many claim the uber wealthy have undue leverage in politics.
“The people who tend not to vote are young, they’re lower income, they’re skewed more heavily towards immigrant groups and minority groups,” Obama said. “There’s a reason why some folks try to keep them away from the polls.”
Transformative it maybe, but not necessarily in a good way. With a voter turnout that floats from the 30% range for midterm elections to 50-60% for presidential ones, American voters vote at some of the lowest rates in the world. That is a problem, but it’s a result, not the cause of the real problem: apathy.
In the 1960s, the twenty-fourth amendment was added to the Constitution forbidding poll taxes because they discriminated against minorities and the poor. Now, a President is suggesting the reverse, a tax for failing to vote. Ironically, that would probably fall heaviest on those who now do now vote – essentially, minorities and the poor.
Over a dozen countries have mandatory voting laws, like Australia, Belgium and Chile. Failure to vote in mandatory voting countries usually involves a fine, but sometimes jail time. For the U.S., the idea may not even be constitutional. The First Amendment guarantees that no law will abridge anyone’s right to freedom of speech. Choosing not to partake in voting is an exercise of free speech.
The idea may be good for the Democratic Party as poor and minority voters tend to favor them. In that way, the idea would be transformative for American politics. It would legitimize American democracy by having a larger percentage of voters taking part in the process. However, a larger turnout does not mean a more engaged electorate.
Mandatory voting means that more people will vote, but it does not require the voter to be more aware or even care about the issues or candidates. Far better than to require an apathetic voter to vote are policies to remove the apathy and ignorance from the voter.
There is already a high degree of scientific illiteracy in the average American voter, and a predisposition to accept conspiracies and other questionable ideas. Nearly half the voters don’t believe in the Big Bang, climate change or evolution. Sizeable minorities question vaccines, GMOs and modern medicine. Other voters embrace that 9/11 was an inside job, Americans didn’t set foot on the moon, or that Obama was born in Kenya and ineligible to be President. It doesn’t matter how transformative a drift to the right or left maybe on voter turnout if the voters are not making informed decisions. Bad policy is not a monopoly of either conservatives or liberals, but it is for uninformed voters and elected officials.
Many excellent suggestions have been proposed over the years, and here are a few:
- Schools give short thrift to Election Day, when it probably should be treated as a special day over all other subjects by holding mock campaigns and elections.
- Alternatively, Some nations honor Election Day as a holiday. The U.S. would do well to do the same.
- Over the years, civics, and many social studies programs that lead to informed citizens have declined in high schools. That needs to change.
- Voting hours could be extended further than they are now or even over two days. Expanding vote by mail opportunities or even computer voting are options to consider.
- Easier ballot access for third parties would open minority views to more expression and participation.
- The enormous cost of political campaigns and contributions must be addressed, including the influence of independent political action committees.
- Independent commissions for Congressional redistricting.
- Real debates, and not pre-programmed talking shows by the candidates that exclude alternative views and hard questions.
- Shorter campaigns overall, including between primaries and general elections.
- Holding runoffs so that plurality candidates aren’t elected.
American politics doesn’t need to be radically transformed, but it needs to be structurally altered. There are enough good things to build on, and the bad ones can be addressed primarily by reducing the influence of money and creating an engaged electorate. Developing an electorate that cares and turns out at 80% or more will take decades, but it is possible. It happened in the early to mid 1800s, before the Civil War. It can happen again. To do this will take decades because it involves teaching children to be citizens and understand the political process that guides society. The result will be an informed electorate that understands problems and solutions. That can’t be mandated. It must be taught. That is why mandatory voting is a solution that will only worsen the problem and could create a bigger problem than simply low voter turnout.